The phrase “experiential learner” is one that Michael Davis drops into conversation just as the interview draws to a close.
The reference, coming amid discussion of his management style, had been preceded by a notebook scribble that read: “Loads of learning experiences.”
The striking thing about this was not the interviewer’s perceptive (if somewhat simplistic) entry, but the open and informative nature of the interviewee’s responses. Plus, of course, their sheer volume.
This is because the UK Commission for Employment and Skills chief executive is a man on whom hitherto seemingly little information was available.
Internet trawls uncovered limited detail on the man, who, it can be revealed here, is a dad-of-two from Leicestershire.
It was a situation that, admittedly, led to presumptions of a relatively unrewarding interview.
In truth, quite the opposite was the case as conversation moved freely between the personal and the professional.
For example, throughout there were surprisingly easy references to his 11-year-old daughter, Charis, seven-year-old son, Luke, and 40-year-old wife, Julie.
In outlining his own varied career path, for instance, he explains the advice he gives Charis.
“She has just started middle school and it feels like she’s just grown up overnight. Suddenly make-up’s gone on and all that sort of stuff, and she’s started conversations about what she wants to be when she grows up. Suddenly, this seems to matter to her,” he says, having listed the police, an accountancy traineeship and a post with a friend’s marketing firm among his early workplace experiences.
“These conversations have gone along the lines of me saying: ‘It’s great to have ideas of what you want to be when you grow up, but don’t get too precious about them because where you finish up is probably nowhere that you thought at the start’.
“It’s easy to look back as a grown-up and see a plan or a sensible career, but in reality there’s probably quite a bit of luck.”
So what luck has played its part in seeing this 39-year-old economics graduate from Lancaster University, where he achieved a 2.1, end up at the top of a public body with a £74m annual turnover?
As you’d expect, it all comes down to experience.
He says he has been lucky to learn from “role model” chairmen in three of his jobs and chief executive at both the commission and Leicester-based Centre for Enterprise (CFE), and board director at lighting firm Lastolite.
It’s great to have ideas of what you want to be when you grow up, but don’t get too precious about them”
These are the commission’s Charlie Mayfield, who has also been the John Lewis Partnership chairman since March 2007; former CFE chairman Professor John Coyne, who is also vice chancellor of the University of Derby; and CFE founder and former chairman Martin Henry OBE, who also ran Lastolite.
“I’m very much an experiential learner so I’ve been lucky to have had three really exceptional chairmen to work for,” says Davis, who has also served as governors’ chair at Leicester College.
“Charlie is an exceptional person to work for. He is very inclusive and brings out the best of all of our different commissioners. But my two other chairmen, although not as well known, were equally brilliant.
“John is a brilliant economist and has a very dry sense of humour, but he’s thoughtful and analytical. He pushed on my thinking.
“The person who recruited me to the CFE was Martin. He had years and years and years of experience, but he would never try to have a conversation with me that included him saying, ‘In my experience.’ He would never say that to shut the conversation down.
“He would just gently, but constantly question me until I’d figured something out for myself and he did a lot to bring on my confidence.”
The effect of such inspirational characters on Davis’s own style of management comes out as an emphasis on positivity, similarity and conciliation crops up elsewhere in conversation — from a lack of ability at karate, to the unexpected revelation of a love of all things Triumph (the British motorbike firm) and the possibly-conflicting funding approaches favoured in apprenticeship reviews carried out last year by Doug Richard and Lord Heseltine.
“I was captain of a university karate club, but probably more for my management of it than competitive ability,” he says, continuing positively: “I doubt in competition I was much of an asset to the team, but when I left membership was up, money in the bank was up and we were paying our instructor more.”
Meanwhile, motorbikes are a source of similarity between, of all things, economists and engineers.
“I’ve always had motorbikes,” says Davis, who was raised in Redditch, Worcestershire.
“Around six of us friends go away for a week each year. They’re all engineers and we’ve been to Europe and Scotland. They say that if you ask ten economists a question you’ll get ten different answers, but it’s the same with engineers — if something goes wrong with your bike and you ask five engineers, there’ll be five different things wrong with it.”
But perhaps the most impressive leap of bridge-building faith is his analysis of the reviews of former Dragons’ Den investor Mr Richard, who wanted to see the tax system fund training, and Tory grandee Lord Heseltine, who called for Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) to bid for training cash from a centralised pot.
“What both [reviews] did was to recognise the role of vocational skills and vocational education,” says Davis, whose time is divided between a South London flat for work and his East Midlands family home at the weekends.
“You can choose to interpret Heseltine and Richard as trying to do something different, but what they’re both trying to do is get employers and businesses much more involved in how the system works.”
And the commission itself figures as Davis evaluates his management style.
“I’ve been involved in business dealings prior to the commission where there was a risk of two parties falling out,” he says.
“My approach was to keep restating what they agreed on and then explore what they disagreed on and conclude by saying, ‘so we do all agree on this and these things we disagree on’ and keep going at it and over time the list of what we agreed on went up and what we disagreed on went down.”
He adds: “What the commission wants is a society in which people are highly-skilled, well-utilised and have good and meaningful careers.
“Nobody disagrees with the outcome we’re trying to achieve, so it’s always a question of how best to achieve that.”
“Central to the commission is creating the space where businesses, colleges and schools really work closely at every level, like designing courses and providing good work experience.
“And what the commission has is a fantastic leadership model. We work really hard in profiling our commissioners, which is why you won’t find anything on me.”
Until now, that is.
It’s a personal thing
What’s your favourite book?
The Complete Works of Shakespeare because it only cost 79p on my Kindle. It was the first piece of fiction I’d read in 20 years, which is quite embarrassing
What did you want to be when you were younger?
What do you do to switch off from work?
Take an interest in anything on two wheels
If you could invite anyone to a dinner party, living or dead, who would it be?
My late nan, Margaret Peagam. She was really quite influential with a very strong work ethic. That’s better than what my kids said. Luke said Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine and a Storm Trooper. And then my daughter, who has a brilliantly dry sense of humour, said: “Yoda, so I could offer him a booster seat.”
What would your super power be?
A Sky Plus controller, so I could skip through boring meetings and slow down interesting times. Luke said he wanted one to skip through maths